Sometimes sanctity feels like an impossible goal. I can admire and love the holiness of the saints but, like the achievement of the professional athlete or Nobel prize winner, I know that it is not something readily within my reach. It seems to be a rare gift or a special privilege, so it is easy to console myself with the seemingly humble admission of how far I fall short of such a lofty ideal.
Being a saint is a gift and a privilege, so we would be right to attribute such holiness to God’s grace! But drawing closer to the saints themselves reveals something more about holiness and the quiet daily struggle of love. Saint John Eudes, whose Memorial we celebrate today, is remembered chiefly for his devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary. But this devotion wasn’t an abstract concept or merely a personal predilection. It was a concrete way of expressing God’s transformation and transfiguration of humanity through the event of the Incarnation. And in the image of the heart, the fullness of human sanctity is revealed.
Saint John Eudes, like so many other saints, wrote many wonderful spiritual works. What stands out in his thought, however, is the intertwining of a meditation upon the holiness of Christ’s life and the necessary holiness of life to which all Christians are called. If I feel intimidated by the holiness of the saints, then I feel infinitely more intimidated by the challenge of truly imitating Jesus’ life! And yet that is exactly what Saint John Eudes encourages us to do. Union with Christ through faith and the sacraments is not a nice sentiment or empty metaphor, but rather a concrete connection to the reality of his Incarnate life. Taking inspiration from Saint Paul’s affirmation that “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church,” (Col 1:24), Eudes argues that every Christian is joined to Christ’s life in a similar way through grace:
“Thus, when a Christian prays, he continues and accomplishes the prayers of Jesus Christ. When he works, he continues and accomplishes Christ’s laborious life. When his relations with his neighbor are inspired by charity, he continues and accomplishes Christ’s public life. When he takes his meals or his rest in a Christian fashion, he continues and accomplishes the subjection to these necessities that Christ willed to have in Himself.” (The Life and the Kingdom of Jesus in Christian Souls, pg. 6)
Like Saint Paul, Saint John doesn’t mean to imply any deficiency in Christ’s earthly life or the efficacy of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Rather, he reminds us that Jesus’ true humanity sanctifies ours in a radical and comprehensive way. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us” (§521).
Does this make holiness seem any more achievable? Saint John Eudes, while still recognizing the difficulty, saw it as a means of drawing the ordinary in our lives (prayer, work, meals) into the realm of Christ’s true human life of ordinary holiness. In his further meditations and exercises, Eudes encourages all Christians to sanctify every action of each day, each week, each month, and each year. Every moment of our lives is changed by Christ’s life, because Christ is truly human and truly divine, the “Word made flesh” in all the specificity of what it means to “dwell among us” (John 1:14). Every moment of our lives is potentially transfigured because God has lived our life even in its quiet struggles and hidden joys.
This is sometimes hard for me to remember, when life seems too complicated, too busy, or too ordinary. But drawing close to the saints reminds me of their humanity and, through them, the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Saint John Eudes teaches us, this shouldn’t be a way of excusing our sinfulness and limitations as merely human. Instead, it should be a way of seeing even the least things in ourselves as a continuation of Christ’s transfiguring love.